Education and the Way Home

Holland, MI

The recent dispute between Joe Carter over at First Things and various occupants of the Porch has already received a good deal of attention, but also demonstrated a regrettable level of talking past one another. This, in no small part, is due to a lack of definitional clarity. If political philosophy be about anything it’s about clarity concerning definitions.

In this instance, it seemed to me, there persists a lack of consensus about the meaning of “liberalism.” Mr.Carter seemed to indicate that liberal systems value human choice and place the onus of choice, and thus responsibility, upon each individual person, and that this freedom to choose for oneself, while not absolute, provides the measure of freedom that is essential to a life well-lived. The distributist ethic, he fears, requires restrictions on freedom, usage, innovation, and mobility that are corrosive of the fundamental good of freedom.

Choice of action can never be the measure of a good or well-ordered society, for human beings never find themselves in positions where they don’t have choices – a point clearly articulated by thinkers such as Solzhenitsyn and Frankl, who discovered this in the belly of the totalitarian beast.

For those on the Porch, “liberal” often connotes a mode of social organization that is atomistic, non-teleological, mercantilist or plutocratic, highly ambulatory, and destructive of intimate social institutions. Or maybe, alternately put, we fear that America is not, properly speaking liberal (being too concerned with national greatness), but in any case the particular set of liberal principles adopted in America, with their faulty anthropological assumptions, simultaneously elevate and isolate the self, abandoning us to our freedom, and fracturing the sorts of healthy communities required for human thriving.

To this, Mr. Carter, if I read him rightly, seems to be saying either “Would you have it any other way?” or, simply, “This is the price of doing business.” And, offering as evidence of Porchers’ bad faith, he suggests that so long as distributists, or their kissing kin on the Porch, live the peripatetic life of the philosopher, not only in ivory towers but also in suburbs, their actions belie their words.

Some dismissed Mr. Carter’s comments as snarky, but I think they ought to be taken seriously. Just as many conservatives would rightly, in my judgment, cast aspersions on limousine liberals, so also, I would think, the ethos of the Porch is susceptible to charges of hypocrisy in terms of whether we are actually seeking out and sustaining the sorts of communities we celebrate. And, with the recent announcement by one of our Senior Editors that he will be leaving his current community to seek out another which offered him better prospects of employment, it may well seem that the Porcher ethic fails at a personal as well as at a social level.

As I said, Mr. Carter’s suggestion that he will start taking Porchers more seriously when they leave the ivory tower and return home strikes me as a serious one worthy of our engagement. Then too, while I do not presume to speak for Mr. Deneen – and Lord knows he can defend himself better than can I – I am inclined to rally behind my friend and colleague, in no small part because I too faced the choice (Mr. Carter will take note) that he has, and made a similar move. Reflecting on this may help shed light on the issue and help us forge a response to Mr. Carter’s challenge.

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